TV Party Tonight!

I was kind of surprised this week when a colleague of mine said that he simply doesn’t have time to deal with requests for independent study or directed readings. I mean, yes, they’re extra teaching on top of everything, but the college does sort of imply in its literature that these are opportunities available to the students. On average, I’m guessing I’ve done one to two of them most of the past six years or so. But they’re good for me, too, a chance to catch up on literatures or explore a new canon.

So this semester I have a request for a half-credit directed reading on television. The literature that I got to know back in the mid-to-late 1990s mostly was the “media effects” and “children’s television” literature, with a smattering of general histories of television thrown in, plus some general work on reception and audiences which has long interested me for other reasons. Plus ye olde canonical work in cultural studies and critical theory that addresses television in some overall way.

I’ve read scholarship on television more sporadically since then. I’d go out on a limb and say that the field is still significantly built around fairly dreary anti-television jeremiads that see the medium as the demon baby of capitalism and postwar American hegemony (in both the geopolitical and Gramscian sense of that term). Even a lot of the cultural studies literature that aims to redeem television from this reputation does so by trying to identify lots of “transgressive” content embedded within television rather than arguing that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the largely undebated assumption that television should be primarily evaluated for its relationship to hegemony or capitalism and presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Thomas Frank’s attack on cultural studies is a pretty mean assessment that assumes that if you’re not part of his kind of economic left in the way you write about TV, you’re so wrong you’re almost not worth talking to. But he does score some points about the obsessive search for transgressive messages and content among cultural studies scholars who want to be “pro-TV” while continuing to claim leftist credentials.

So what’s the state of the TV scholarship these days? I was pretty impressed by some of the stuff I’ve been reading. There’s an interesting literature on the actual conditions of production within the television business, most notably Richard Caves Switching Channels. This has always been one of the missing pieces in cultural studies work on television: a lot of scholars either don’t think about the internal institutional organization and economics of cultural industries or make very careless glosses on those questions based on press reports and general data.

I was even more pleased to see a really good cluster of work on genres in television, especially work by a scholar named Jason Mittell and many of the essays in a volume called Thinking Outside of the Box. Writing about genre seems one of the most satisfying ways to merge cultural criticism, cultural history, and aesthetic analysis. Genres are intrinsically historical, building over time, not the more dreary kind of historicism that largely reduces expressive culture to an expression of the social, political and economic institutions that produce it.

There’s also some interesting pockets of scholarly work on particular television programs, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some of that is either the same old “it’s ok that I’m writing scholarship about this because I’m going to prove that this program is actually subverting capitalist hegemony or fighting for race/class/gender liberation” or the even more irritating, “I’m going to prove my scholarly legitimacy in writing about this show in a way that makes Derrida look like he was writing ‘Dick and Jane’ primers”. But some of the program-based literature is quite good: readable, challenging and yet also genuinely scholarly in the best sense.

Maybe I need to add a course on television studies to the catalog of things I might choose to teach in the next five years…

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3 Responses to TV Party Tonight!

  1. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    Two comments:

    On TV, you might want to contact Elizabeth Traube at Wesleyan, who teaches a very good course that escapes the pitfalls you describe. The books you describe look interesting too.

    As for indepentant study course, my approach is to explain to students that I am happy to help them design the course, and to meet with them to talk about the reading, but that I can’t DO the reading. Instead, they will have to explain to me what its about–when me meet, I try to really figure out what the reading is about and what it says, by asking them questions as though they were a colleague. It doesn’t always work, but with good students its really great to put them in a position where if they can’t explain the text then we can’t have a conversation about it–it sort of moves the discussion away from “pretend” to “real” and I find myself questioning them in a way I never would if I knew what the answer was or that the text DIDN’T answer the questions I had about it. In the best of all possible worlds I even learn a lot.

  2. engelcox says:

    Did you ever read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death? He’s almost a technophobe, but I still thought the book was interesting and well worth discussion. It’s been a few years since I read it, so it may be outdated to some extent now, especially as the Internet makes inroads on what had been TV’s purview.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes–I think that’s a core text in the “media effects” literature. (I wouldn’t say he’s almost a technophobe: I’d almost expect to see his picture in the dictionary under “technophobe”.)

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